My big a-ha from the teleclass I did with Brené Brown yesterday: Brené says the most terrifying emotion we experience as humans is joy. We’re so frightened of loss that we can’t even allow ourselves to lean into those moments when we’re standing over our children watching them sleep or when we’re falling in love and it feels like our hearts will burst. The second most of us start to feel joy, instead of relishing the blessings, we tend to get swallowed by the fear that the other shoe is about to drop.
Brené said, “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.” Instead of allowing ourselves to feel the vulnerability of how much joy we feel and how much hurt we would experience if we lost what we have, we dress rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch. We look at our kids with so much love and then imagine them dying. We feel such tenderness for the person we’re falling in love with that we fast forward straight to the day when we get our heart broken. If things are going well in our professional life, we imagine the day we get fired or lose all our money, power, and status. It’s like, by trying to imagine the worst case scenario, we somehow think we’re protecting ourselves from what we fear most.
But guess what? It doesn’t work. If your child dies or the love of your life abandons you or you lose your job or you declare bankruptcy—or whatever tragedy you imagine might befall you happens—no dress rehearsal will protect you from loss and pain. And in the interim, you’ve missed your chance for effervescent joy, radical presence, true bliss—and the health benefits that accompany joy.
Here’s the a-ha with where Brené’s work overlaps with what I write about in Mind Over Medicine. Our nervous systems can’t tell the difference between dress rehearsing tragedy and real tragedy. As far as your amygdala is concerned, whether your child dies or whether you just IMAGINE that your child dies, your “fight-or-flight” responses get triggered and your nervous system goes on red alert.
And here’s the kicker. Your body is brilliantly equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can kill cancer cells, fight infection, and repair what breaks. But those self-repair mechanisms ONLY operate when you’re not in “fight-or-flight.” So every time you dress rehearse tragedy, you put your body at risk of disease, disabling its ability to heal itself.
What’s the Prescription? Brené says the solution is to lean into the vulnerability of those moments of joy—to feel the flutter in your belly when you’re feeling deep love or worried that the other shoe might be about to drop—and to use that flutter of fear of loss as a reminder to practice gratitude. Look at that sleeping child and feel grateful. Stare into the eyes of your beloved and count your blessings. Feel grateful for the fact that you’ve found your calling and are in full service to your mission. Acknowledge how much you have to lose—and just revel in it. Give those you love permission to break your heart, and lean into how lucky you are.
When you do, you calm the scaredy-cat amygdala in your limbic brain, you shut off “fight-or-flight,” your decrease levels of potentially poisonous cortisol and epinephrine, you flip on relaxation responses, you fill your body with healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins, and your body’s self-repair mechanisms can come to the rescue.
Do you get it? The willingness to make yourself emotionally vulnerable to pain and loss, to lean into joy, even when it feels foreboding, to practice gratitude when you fear how much you have to lose, it isn’t just the gateway to intimacy. It’s preventive medicine, and it just might save your life.
~Facebook post by Lissa Rankin, author of Mind Over Medicine (May 31, 2013)